We cross the last hundred yards of open field—from the paved park road that runs parallel to “Lee’s Second Line” toward the Harrison House—that the Union soldiers could not cross. Our path runs through patches of grasses, ferns, and scrub watercolored with the first brushes of emerging fall color. We pass over the trickle of a stream before hiking up the final rise to the house site itself. No Union soldier made it this far, even with the protection offered by the hill.
Caity and I have come to Spotsylvania, to what had once been the interior of the Mule Shoe Salient, to find one of the battlefield’s forgotten stories. The Federal assaults on May 18, 1864 stand as a testament to the power of engineering over infantry in one of the most futile efforts of Grant’s entire Overland Campaign.
But to look at the field today, there’s nary an indication that anything happened here at all.
The park’s emphasis in recent years on slave and civilian stories has left much of the battlefields’ military history untold and unexplored. The Federal assault on May 18 deserves attention because it was just as large as the Federal assault against the Mule Shoe on May 12. It covered the same ground and used the same tactics, and it pitted many of the same Federals against the same Confederates.
Yet the outcome could not have been more different.
Ewell’s veterans, so bruised on May 12, had spent the intervening six days doing nothing but resting and fortifying. The works they created were the strongest field fortifications seen in the east to date.
The remnants of those works still wind along the crest of the hill through the woods along the Spotsylvania history trail. They are among the best-preserved earthworks in the park accessible to visitors.
In front of the works, Confederates had spread “acres of abatis” and a picket line. “As the Confederate skirmishers were swept back before the strong lines of blue,” wrote one Massachusetts soldier, “the restrained tempest broke forth, and with shriek and scream and hissing, poured its death blast in the faces of the Union soldiers.”
The Confederate artillery “mowed the men down in rows,” wrote a Rhode Islander. One Confederate called it “terrible execution.”
The smoke and cacophony of battle—so different than this quiet overcast evening Caity and I walk the ground—“filled the valleys, and rested on the hills of all this wilderness, hung in lurid haze all around the horizon, and built a dense canopy overhead,” wrote a Union medical officer.
“For a few minutes all was observed in mystery,” said Major Wesley Brainerd of the 50th NY Engineers. “Moments seemed like hours. Then the cheering ceased and dark masses of our men were seen through the openings in the uprising smoke returning as they went but with awfully suggestive gaps in their ranks. The assault had failed. Soon the smoke cleared away and disclosed the ground for long distances thickly strewn with our dead and dying men. It was an awfully grand spectacle, one often repeated around that ground which has been justly styled ‘Bloody Spotsylvania.’”
Federal casualties on the field totaled some 1,250 men. Most of them were “torn all to pieces with canon balls,” said one Confederate observer. A Richmond newspaper explained that “[v]ery little musketry was used in this engagement, for the reason that the enemy did not come near enough our lines.”
I stand at the crest of the hill and look back across the assault field and really think about that: Confederate artillery laid down such devastating fire that Confederate infantry hardly had to engage. What must it have been like out there on that field, all patchwork color this evening but all blue and blood and smokey gray on that May morning years ago?
No traces of the carnage remain on the field, of course—but no traces remain in the public imagination or memory, either. The only interpretive marker on this part of the battlefield sits on a small plot of grass near the ruins of the Harrison House, where Lee and Ewell made their headquarters before the May 12 assault. The sign, which is decades old, explains the site’s significance to that incident, but it remains mute on the May 18 attack. It remains mute on the Harrison family, too.
Beyond the Bloody Angle, Spotsylvania illustrates the ongoing chess match between Grant and Lee as they poke and probe and maneuver and fight. The details of that strategic struggle largely get ignored—although that very strategy allows Grant to eventually win the war.
The stories go untold. The voices go unheard. The landscape goes uninterpreted.
Caity takes pictures. I write words. We try to see this land, share this story, so people won’t forget.
For further reading on the May 18 assaults, check out the article Kris White and I wrote for Blue & Gray magazine (XXVII #6, 2011). You can also always count on Gordon Rhea— look to chapter five in To the North Anna River for his extensive account.